From left, Andrew Berman, director of G.V.S.H.P., Zack Winestine of the Greenwich Village Community Task Force and Jon Prosnit from State Senator Tom Duanes office at a mass rally and march in May to save the Far West Village. In the background (with smokestack) is the Superior Inks building, a contentious development site.
A landmark year in effort to save Far West Village
By Andrew Berman
The year 2005 will likely go down as a watershed year for Village preservation efforts, perhaps the most critical since the passage of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969. The accomplishments are many, though there are still some extremely critical battles to be won.
The biggest news on this front was without a doubt the success in the Far West Village, where rapidly multiplying waterfront high-rises made this the most immediately endangered area of Greenwich Village. While preserving this area has been a goal of the community since Jane Jacobss day, sadly, there had been little good news to report since the 1960s. However, after a year-and-a-half-long concerted campaign led by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation with broad community participation, much of the neighborhood was downzoned, reducing the size and height of allowable new development; and we are poised to get a significant expansion of landmark protections for the area, preserving historic buildings in perpetuity.
On the landmarking front, success came not only when the city introduced its landmarking plan for the area, but when we got the administration to accelerate the timeframe for implementation of the plan, and to expand it to include three additional endangered buildings. A proposed expansion of the existing Greenwich Village Historic District into the Far West Village and creation of a new Weehawken St. Historic District was heard by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in October and will receive a second hearing on Dec. 13, months ahead of schedule; we are pushing for approval as soon as possible afterwards. Additionally, the city has promised to consider eight other individual sites in the Far West Village, including the entire Westbeth complex and Charles Lane, for landmark designation, and we are pushing for these as well.
On the negative side of the landmarks ledger, endangered buildings for which there is strong support for designation, like the Superior Inks factory, the 1856 former stable/factory at 389 W. 12th St., and the buildings surrounding Charles Lane, have not been proposed for designation by the city, and G.V.S.H.P. and many others continue to fight to save them.
Because we were also able to move the downzoning of the Far West Village with record speed, we were able to block several developers from moving ahead with high-rise plans. The downzoning also caught three developments at 163 Charles, 166 Perry and 360 W. 11th Sts. in progress, but we have gotten the city to put them on hold because they do not conform to the new zoning for the area; the fate of these projects will likely end up being decided at the Board of Standards and Appeals.
On the negative side of the zoning ledger, the city stubbornly refused to downzone the Superior Inks site (at West and Bethune Sts.) and Whitehall Storage site (at Charles and W. 10th Sts. between West and Washington Sts.), in spite of our massive protests and letter-writing campaigns. However, the developer, Related Companies, has, in response to a great deal of pressure, reduced the height of their planned development on the Superior Inks site from a 270 feet to 190 feet tall, reduced its size considerably, and gotten rid of the original curving reflective glass design. While this is a partial victory for our efforts, we are still fighting to reduce this project further or stop it outright through landmarking. The Witkoff Group has also promised not to build to the full allowable height or size on the Whitehall Storage site, to reuse part of the facade of the original building, to reduce the proposed building height from 195 feet to 175 feet, and to consult with the community and neighbors on design issues. This too is a partial victory for all our efforts, though we continue to push for further reductions in the size of the building, and continue to call into question the process by which the city allowed this developer to retain the most generous zoning of any midblock site in Greenwich Village (midblock sites typically have lower zoning), while virtually everything around it was downzoned, landmarked or both.
Of course, the West Village waterfront was not the only area facing danger, or making progress. In the East Village, G.V.S.H.P. is working with the local community board, community groups like the East Village Community Coalition and elected officials to seek contextual zoning for the area not unlike the protections secured in the Far West Village. The city has thus far been receptive, and hopes are high that such a measure can be enacted soon. Contextual zoning would provide significant protections against high-rise development in this low-rise neighborhood, such as the controversial 81 E. Third St., a 13-story dorm towering over its three-to-six-story, side-street neighbors.
A great victory was achieved when the city rejected a variance application for a 19-story dorm on the site of the old P.S. 64/Charas Community Center at 605 E. Ninth St., and on the same day calendared the building for a landmarks hearing the first official step towards possible designation. More broadly, the citys rejection of this variance application preserved an important regulation which G.V.S.H.P. and many others fought for which prevents what we call Trojan dorms speculative residential developments pretending to be dorms in order to exploit the preferential treatment and greater bulk dorms get under city zoning.
Not everything this year was good news, however. At Thompson and Broome Sts., G.V.S.H.P. and neighbors are fighting to preserve the beloved Tunnel Garage from a demolition plan. In Noho, in spite of dedicated efforts by the community, the city has still not acted to landmark the remaining vulnerable eastern section of the neighborhood. And a trio of powerful forces the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the United States Postal Service and New York University have presented some serious new development and preservation challenges for the neighborhood.
The archdiocese announced plans to close and sell off St. Brigids Church on Avenue B and St. Anthonys School on MacDougal St., leaving the fate of these historic buildings in serious jeopardy, and the possibility of inappropriate development in their place a very real concern. Meanwhile, G.V.S.H.P. has discovered that the Postal Service has been selling off air rights from its post offices all over Manhattan to private developers, increasing the size of nearby real estate developments. (G.V.S.H.P.s complaints led to a federal review of the sales, which did not go through the proper procedure for addressing historic preservation concerns.) And of course N.Y.U.s expansionist tendencies remain a constant source of anxiety in Greenwich Village, the East Village and Noho.
All three formidable entities have come together for what could, unfortunately, be the perfect storm of out-of-scale development for the neighborhood. At the site of the old St. Anns Church at 110-124 E. 12th St., the archdiocese closed down and sold off one of the neighborhoods oldest and most historically distinguished churches. Over the protests of G.V.S.H.P., neighbors and parishioners, the city refused to landmark the building, and all except the original 1847 tower was demolished. The Postal Service sold development rights from the neighboring Cooper Station Post Office to the new developer/owner of the site, who then entered into a deal with N.Y.U. to develop a 26-story dorm on the midblock site, which would be the tallest building in the East Village. By comparison, N.Y.U.s nearby dorms on Third Ave. long considered intrusive in their scale are only about 15 stories.
Fortunately, the story neednt end there. N.Y.U. and the developer have already agreed to meet with G.V.S.H.P. and neighbors to discuss the plans and listen to the concerns we have stated. When John Sexton took over as the new N.Y.U. president, he promised to respect the fragile ecosystem of the Village and to work more closely with the community on development issues. Whether or not 2006 follows 2005 as another positive year for neighborhood preservation efforts in the Village may well hinge upon whether or not President Sexton maintains his commitment to the community. Many will no doubt be out there demanding nothing less.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation